Tuesday, April 14, 2015
You really should see it. I’m sure they’ll replay it a gazillion times. It’s chock full of great footage and does a pretty good job of giving you a portrait of this extremely gifted and complex man.
As in all Sinatra bios, it’s somewhat slanted in one direction or the other – in this case, favorably. Little surprise there because the family sanctioned it and gave them access to lots of unseen stuff. On the other hand, you can pick up Kitty Kelly’s bio of Frank, open to any page and he’s either having someone roughed up or he’s sleeping with Bacall while Bogie is on his deathbed. A book by his longtime valet reveals that in the early ‘50s when the clock reached 1:00 AM and none of Sinatra’s girlfriends or high-priced hookers were available, he’d call neighbor Peggy Lee and go over to her place to bang her. (That must’ve been lovely for Peggy Lee’s family to read.)
The impossible task is to determine truth from myth. I’m sure some of the stories about him aren’t true, while other, even more outlandish stories, are.
From the valet’s bio: When Sinatra was considering going out with Mia Farrow he was concerned she was still a teenager. Would he have anything to talk about with her? Would he feel like a dirty old man? So his cronies arranged for him to sleep with a few teenagers to, y’know, take ‘em for a test drive. This was not in the documentary. But was it even true? Did Joseph Kennedy and JFK spend weekends at Sinatra’s Palm Springs pad just passing around girls? Again, not in the doc. (But probably definitely true.)
The documentary was very selective. It referenced his father’s death but said nothing about his mother, who died in a plane crash. It talks about the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping but doesn’t tell you how they caught the idiots who pulled it. There’s a section about Frank Jr.’s career as a singer but nothing about Nancy’s – and she was successful.
But to its credit, the documentary does not completely whitewash. It practically states that Sinatra got Kennedy elected thanks to the mob fixing the Illinois election. And although Sinatra was truly a champion in the fight for Civil Rights, the movie does show him making horribly offensive racist jokes at the expense of Sammy Davis Jr. Face it, the man was an enigma.
But he was also a remarkable singer. And the documentary really celebrates that. You see snippets of many performances and get glimpses into his process. He learned a breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey that allowed him to pause in songs based on story points, not the normal breaks. He originated the theme album, chose all his material, and had strong input on his arrangements. For six weeks before recording an album he quit smoking and drinking. In the valet’s book, he said Sinatra also sang opera to prepare his voice. He recorded all of his songs with the orchestra live in the studio. No headphones, no glass booth, no singing over pre-recorded tracks.
Personally, I think his Capitol Records period in the ‘50s was remarkable. He was at the absolute height of his powers at a time when that kind of music was in vogue. To this day I marvel at those albums. No one could sing a torch song like Sinatra. When I was nine they made me cry and I had no idea what he was singing about. Check out this song from 1957. Your heart positively breaks for him even though you know that any girl you ever loved would leave you in a second for him.
His swinging repertoire, masterfully arranged by Nelson Riddle, remains in a class by itself. Sorry, Michael Buble, you’re a cover band.
The fact that Sinatra seemed to record every single song written between 1935-1980, there is a huge body of work. Lots will be forgotten but I feel some of his Capitol tunes will be heard for the next hundred years. The only surviving art of the 20th Century will be I LOVE LUCY and Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely” album.
But then came the ‘60s and his ultimate downfall. I blame it on the Rat Pack. Yes, they were entertaining and put Vegas on the map, but it spawned the Sinatra “ring a ding ding” persona and as the music scene moved on he became more entrenched as this anachronistic hipster and became a joke. He was completely out of touch with rock music, and when he attempted to sing it (with his special “spin”) it was laughable. Listen to his appalling version of Mrs. Robinson. “Jilly” loves you more than you will know. How’s your bird, Mrs. Robinson? Wouldn’t you have loved to be in the room with Paul Simon when he first heard that?
The documentary does show a clip of Sinatra on a Fifth Dimension special wearing a sequenced Nehru jacket and looking like a clown and then later a two-shot of him with Michael Jackson where it’s hard to tell who’s more creeped-out.
But ultimately Ol' Blue Eyes redeems himself, has one last hurrah with “New York/New York, and goes out on a high note.
I saw Sinatra in concert once. It was towards the end of his career. He was bloated, couldn’t hit most of the notes, the toupee was a little crooked, and his jokes were lame. (Quick aside: His jokes were always lame. He thought he was hilarious but never was. If he tried to make a living as a comedian instead of a singer, Peggy Lee would have said, “Stop calling me in the middle of the night! Get lost!”) But it was an unmistakable thrill. Just seeing him, just hearing him sing – and by that time he went back to familiar standards; no massacring Jim Croce songs – I felt I was in the presence of greatness. And how often do you experience that?
SINATRA, the four-hour HBO documentary ultimately focused on that, which is what I wanted. Being at the Universal Amphitheater that summer night, grooving to “Fly Me to the Moon,” I wasn’t thinking that he probably had Marilyn Monroe before Kennedy, or that he should be in prison on fifty counts of aggravated assault – I just reveled in the fact that I would never hear a better singer in my lifetime… and before every song he acknowledged the writers. I loved the guy.